Obama’s makeover

The makeover has begun, and by the time it’s complete, Barack Obama will be barely recognizable to many of those who signed on with him a year ago.

The man who began his campaign as a quasi-spokesman for the folks at MoveOn.Org now claims he gets his foreign policy advice from a consortium of Democratic insiders that includes former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Obama may not think much of Bill and Hillary, but he wants general-election voters to know that he’s really not as different from past Democratic nominees as his followers believed.

This is of a piece with his recent assurance to Iraqi officials that they have nothing to fear, because as president he will do nothing to jeopardize their security as they work to rebuild in one of the most dangerous of the world’s neighborhoods. The implications of such assurances for his oft-stated plan to get out of Iraq as soon as possible are unclear, but maybe his new surrogates will be able to explain them for us … and for him.

Makeovers cost money, so the man who pledged earlier to finance his general-election campaign using public monies has decided that since he’s managed to build one heck of a fundraising machine, it is a pledge he can afford to break. Although they like to give the public a different impression, Democrats and their allies outspent the Bush campaign in 2004 and will do what they can to utilize their fundraising superiority to bury McCain’s campaign this year.

Even his occasionally feisty wife is being remolded, or at least put into the hands of image-handlers who are already presenting a “softer” and more traditional side of her to the public. One suspects that we will no longer hear her complaining about her student loans or talking about when she was first able to say she felt pride in her country. Mrs. Obama will talk about her home life, her children and probably the sorts of cookies she bakes when she gets home from work. Her handlers may not be able to turn her into June Cleaver, but you can bet they’re going to try.

Much of this makes sense, of course, as Obama moves into a general-election campaign that will be decided by voters who are at present a bit uncomfortable with him and unsure of whether he’s ready for the presidency. That’s one of the reasons he’s underperforming generic Democrats in most polls by as much as a dozen points, and it’s why he and John McCain are in what appears to be a real horse race in a year when the Republican candidate shouldn’t have a chance.

Even if it does make sense, it also presents something of a risk for a candidate who is known only as a fresh-faced outsider who rode to his party’s nomination promising “change” to suddenly become the candidate of the “business as usual” crowd. Before it’s over, many could end up wondering if a man about whom they know so little believes in the same things they believe or, indeed, in much of anything.

To aid the makeover, Obama’s handlers have begun aggressively controlling media access to their candidate by imposing rules that would have made Richard Nixon proud — and this is not going over well with those trying to cover the new, emerging Obama. The result has included both protests from news organizations and a series of articles focusing on the makeover and the creation of a “new” Obama.

Obama’s managers seem willing to bear these risks, as they apparently believe that since people know so little about their candidate, he represents something of a blank slate on which they can scribble what they choose. They may be right, but it’s rather late in this year’s cycle to get away with this; with all the attention already focused on Obama, radical changes now could backfire. The new Obama they are inventing could just as easily end up being seen not as a safe if liberal traditional Democrat, but as an empty suit willing to do whatever his handlers suggest.

If voters are convinced by all this that Barack Obama’s desire for change is merely a desire for a personal change of jobs and addresses, the whole effort will end up helping John McCain play on doubts that are already out there.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.